17 January 2019

Prof Guus Velders in NRC

Climate change is also a health risk

A greater focus on the public health consequences of climate change could increase the urgency of climate policy, according to Guus Velders, Professor of Air Quality and Climate Interactions at Utrecht University

This blog was published on 11 December 2018 on the climate blog of the NRC.

In Katowice this week, the terms of the Paris Climate Agreement (2015) will be further fleshed out. The important role that scientists can play at an international summit of this kind was something I experienced personally in the case of the Montreal Protocol, the treaty to protect the ozone layer.

I spent ten years conducting research into the effects on the climate of gases that are responsible for depleting the ozone layer (CFCs) and their alternatives, hydrofluorocarbons. It was partly this kind of research and its presentation at the international negotiations that led to the conclusion in Rwanda in 2016 of a globally binding agreement to severely limit the use of hydrofluorocarbons, powerful greenhouse gases. The ozone layer is now slowly recovering.

In the lead-up to the summit in Poland, scientists also made their voices heard. The IPCC, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, reported that we will probably already see warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius between 2030 and 2052, if the current trend continues, and that this large warming will have serious effects. In its ‘Emissions Gap’ report, the UN noted that greenhouse gas emissions rose again in 2017 after three years of stabilisation despite the fact that they will need to be 50% lower by 2030 in order to ensure that warming remains below 1.5 degrees Celsius in a way that is cost-effective. According to the International Energy Agency, the demand for energy will grow by more than 25% worldwide by 2040, despite the significant increase in wind and solar energy.

We must set to work, preferably today, rather than tomorrow.

These reports continue to repeat the same message: we must set to work, preferably today, rather than tomorrow. But not everyone feels this sense of urgency, it would appear. This was evident last weekend when the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait attempted to downplay the significance of the IPCC report.

In the case of the Montreal Protocol, this sense of urgency was tangible, partly because the consequences both for the environment and for public health were patently clear. Extra ultraviolet radiation caused by a thinner ozone layer can give you skin cancer. It was that realisation that gave world leaders the confidence they needed to take decisive action.

There is a lack of urgency to take steps in the right direction now, because the general public is yet to experience the consequences.
Guus Velders
Professor of Air Quality and Climate Interactions at Utrecht University

The current climate debate is almost entirely devoted to melting ice caps, heat records and CO2 emissions. All of this research is extremely useful and urgent, but the general public is yet to experience the consequences. As a result, there is a lack of urgency to take steps in the right direction now.

Credit: iStock.com/fotokon

Health effects do have a direct impact on people. It is already happening, but we rarely get to read about it. A recent report in the medical journal The Lancet stated that the consequences of climate change constitute an unacceptably high risk for public health, now and in the future. In 2017, 157 million more people were exposed to heat waves than in 2000. The extreme hot weather of 2003 caused thousands of premature deaths in Western Europe. Fine particulates released by the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal, diesel and biomass, are responsible for 7 million (!) deaths every year, according to the World Health Organisation. In addition, all kinds of infectious diseases may emerge as a result of climate change. Although there is a long list of similar research findings, there is too little public interest. This is also the responsibility of science.

All of the countries of the United Nations can take joint effective action in the fight for the climate – as long as they are convinced that our health is at risk.
Guus Velders
Professor of Air Quality and Climate Interactions at Utrecht University

The 2016 summit in Rwanda demonstrated that all of the countries of the United Nations can take joint effective action in the fight for the climate – as long as they are convinced that our health is at risk. Sad to say, not everyone at Katowice would appear to be sufficiently aware of this.

Scientists from Utrecht University are reporting in the climate blog of the NRC on their research in the field of sustainability. They are united around the strategic theme of 'Pathways to Sustainability.